The evolutionary origins of fair fights

by Aaron Sell

In early July 2004, the lead singer of Misfits – Glenn Anzalone (better known as Danzig) got into an argument with a fellow musician Danny Marianino backstage after a concert. After some aggressive words, Danzig pushed Danny back. It is important to know that Danzig was widely known for his aggressive and formidable nature, his deep baritone singing voice, and his muscular build. His body type was so befitting of a muscular hero that he was approached to audition for the role of Wolverine in the original X-men movie.  He was also a practitioner of Jeet Kune Do, the martial arts style of Bruce Lee, and a student of Muay Thai. And so, one can imagine his fans reaction when, following Danzig’s push, Danny promptly knocked the singer unconscious with a rapid right hook to the face. Not yet knowing he was unconscious, his fans yelled for him to kick Danny’s ass, but upon realizing he was no longer sentient, a Danzig fan yelled out, “Cheap shot.”  The video has been immortalized online.

Like most human concepts, the “cheap shot” or “unfair fight” or “sucker punch” are immediately intuitive, but contain a computational complexity to them that requires careful scientific study to map. What exactly is a cheap shot? How can a fight, which involves two people (usually men) beating each other until one is incapacitated or gives up, be in any way “fair”? “Fair” usually means evenly or equitably divided, but a fight is a fight precisely to determine a winner and a loser – one gets victory, the other shame and injury. “Fair” means something else here.

Let us start with first principles. Fights are dangerous, but contain useful information about who is a better fighter. This information was of crucial value to our ancestors; so much so that we appear to have evolved numerous complex perceptual mechanisms for assessing the fighting ability of men (Sell et al. 2009; Sell 2012). However, some aspects of fighting ability cannot be perceived by the visual system; for example, reaction time, hand-eye coordination, pain thresholds, etc. Only a bout of aggression reveals these in their sum and interactions, and so the outcomes of such fights serve as a particularly accurate signal of fighting ability.

However, fighting is inherently costly and dangerous. And so natural selection has designed, in many animals including humans, ritualized bouts of aggression wherein the organisms fight using restrained attacks meant to demonstrate fighting ability while diminishing the chance for lethal or injurious aggression. Cichlid fish, for example, will “tail beat” at each other generating waves that crash into their opponents and reveal their bodily strength. Only if those early less lethal means of aggression fail to reveal a victor do they escalate to actual biting. Similar patterns can be seen among housecats who will “punch” each other with claws withdrawn before using fangs. Danzig demonstrated the typical human pattern of pushing and shoving at the start of a typical fight.

The accuracy of these bouts, however, can be compromised by temporary circumstances that make a weaker fighter more likely to win, e.g. they attacked a sleeping opponent. In such a circumstance, the outcome of the fight is no longer a valid cue of fighting ability. Therefore, the outcome of such a fight can be dismissed (at least in part) as a cue of fighting ability. On this theory, a “fair” fight is one that is free of temporary asymmetries in a fighting ability.

In a study run on a sample of 300 US citizens, Daniel Sznycer, Matt Meyers, and I, showed that fights are deemed “unfair” when they contain such asymmetries. For example, in one case a teenager had injured his arm in gym class before a fight. In the control case, the teenager’s injury had recovered. Those subjects that read about the injured arm, found the subsequent fight unfair. In other cases, subjects read about a fight where the putative winner had help from a friend (unfair), was unprepared for aggression (i.e. “sucker punch”, unfair), or used a weapon when their opponent had declined to use it (unfair). In my favorite case, subjects read about an escalating fight with rocks and a tire iron. The two conditions contained exactly the same words, but in the “rapid escalationcondition the winner used the tire iron early in the fight, and in the “slow escalation” condition he used it later in the fight. When the winner used the tire iron early it was deemed unfair. When used late, after the opponent had a rock…it was fair. This is likely what Danzig’s fan was referring to when she called the punch a “cheap shot”; Danzig was in the pushing and shoving portion of the fight, while Danny rapidly escalated to a punch.

The evolutionary function of analyzing fairness in a fight was demonstrated when we asked subjects who would win a rematch if the fighters fought again (after they had recovered). In all but one of the five cases, there was a penalty assigned to a fighter who won unfairly. If they had won unfairly in their initial fight, subjects predicted they would be less likely to win a rematch. In short, “cheating” to win makes you seem weaker. And thus, Danzig’s fan was asking us to discount the fight and refrain from concluding that the Misfit’s singer was weaker than Danny.

Additional implicit fighting rules are contained in a concept of “honor”, and serve to minimize the costs to the combatants. For example, continuing to hit an opponent that has already surrendered was not deemed “unfair” but was considered immoral and dishonorable. Similarly, challenging and defeating someone who was clearly weaker (e.g. an elderly professor) was seen as dishonorable, even though the fight did show in a valid way who was a better fighter.

In short, humans appear to have evolved concepts (similar to those at work in other animals) that contain rules for combat meant to preserve the accuracy of assessing fighting ability while minimizing costs to the combatants. These rules include the absence of temporary asymmetries that bias the fight and tactical restraint that limits the kinds of attacks that are permissible unless it is part of mutual simultaneous escalation, e.g. eye-gouging, knees to the groin, weaponry, etc.

The computational analysis of fairness and honor in fights is just beginning, but the functional design of the concepts and their widespread existence in the animal kingdom demonstrate that only an evolutionary psychological perspective will be able to explain it.